Monday, April 29, 2019

The "I Know A Guy" Strategy For Adding NPCs To Your Game

When you're a dungeon master, it can sometimes be a huge pain in the ass to add NPCs to the game on the fly. This is especially true if you're party is just looking to gather some information, or to find something of interest to them that might not exactly be plot related. While you can write entire notebooks full of characters, or keep guides like 100 NPCs You Might Meet at The Tavern or 100 Characters You Might Meet in A Star Port close to hand behind your screen, there is an easier way to fill out the roster of background characters at your game.

Simply ask the players if anyone's character Knows A Guy...

Yeah, I know a guy. He owes me a favor after that time in Brightwater...

How The "I Know A Guy" Strategy Works

The way this strategy works is pretty simple. When the players want to look for something, and you don't have an NPC planned who has that information (or you have one planned, but the players' course of action isn't going to let them cross paths with that particular person), take a moment and ask one of the players if their character would know someone who could help them out. If the first person you ask can't think of anyone, they could pass their turn to another player and ask if their character Knows A Guy who can help them out.

"We could ask Stratus, I guess... just follow the sounds of the fighting."
This strategy does two things for you as a dungeon master. On one hand, it frees you up of having to come up with all the minor NPCs so you can save your brainpower for the bigger, more important parts of the game. On the other hand, it gives your players some control in expanding the setting, and it allows every person at the table to add in other characters connected to their PCs who can help advance the game in unusual ways.

If you need to find an invitation or two to the duke's ball, perhaps your fighter once served with the captain of the guard, who could pull some strings on the party's behalf. If you need someone who knows the legends of the dragon Barnathus, it's possible that the ranger regularly lit a pipe with a traveling historian who had a fascination with dragon lore. Your bard might not know exactly where the black market operates in the city, but they used to perform with a singer who was more than a little on the shady side, and he might be able to make some introductions.

And so on, and so forth.

The idea behind this strategy is that everyone knows someone, and those friends, family members, and former associates may show up in odd or unexpected places. Just because your barbarian is hundreds of miles from their home, that doesn't mean they won't run into someone whose tattoos and scarification they recognize as a cousin from another tribe, or someone they share a cultural connection to. Unless the whole point of the game is to put the party in a location where they have no connections and no contacts to draw on, you should let them add some of these detailed flourishes to free up your time as the dungeon master.

A Final Caveat

There is one thing that needs to be added as a caveat to this strategy; all instances of I Know A Guy need to include an element of quid pro quo.

As a for-instance, if your rogue happens to know an unscrupulous wizard who deals in otherwise illicit magical weapons, that is a perfectly good way to grant your players an opportunity to buy cool gear and upgrades. It cannot however, be used as a way to just get a bunch of free stuff because the rogue saved that wizard's life off-screen in the backstory somewhere.

The more you need the NPC to do for the party, the more the party needs to do for that NPC. If you need some information, talk is cheap and it's probably no big deal. If you need a small favor, well, you might have to go on a brief fetch quest of your own, or perhaps owe that character a favor in return that you'll be made to pay back later. Your former comrade-in-arms gets you an invitation to the ball, but a few months later he comes to you because there's something fishy going on that he can't have anyone investigate officially, so now you need to pay him back. And if someone in your party is dead? Well, that old crack-brained sorcerer you've heard of will bring them back to life, but only once you make it clear you're going to go ruin the prince who fired him, and sent the miracle worked into exile.

Of course, if you're looking for a few bonus supplements of NPCs to keep around so your players don't have to do all the work, I'd recommend the following:

- 100 Merchants to Encounter: From sword belts to cursed items, fairy favors to mechanical servitors, there's a bit of everything in this collection of marketeers.

- 100 Nobles to Encounter: Whether you have friends or enemies in high places, this list will give you plenty of both to draw on.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. If you've used this strategy in your games, leave a comment below and let us know how it went for you!

For more of my work, check out my Vocal and Gamers archives, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. Or if you'd prefer to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, then head over to My Amazon Author Page!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now Pinterest as well! To support my work, consider Buying Me a Ko-Fi, or heading to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron. That one helps ensure you get more Improved Initiative, and it means you'll get my regular, monthly giveaways as a bonus!

Friday, April 26, 2019

In Defense of The Humble Sling (in Pathfinder)

Every now and again I'll see someone claim that a class, a spell, or a weapon in Pathfinder is useless. "Why would anyone waste their time with this thing?" is the typical question, and it's led me to write posts like Aid Another in Pathfinder is More Powerful Than You Think (one of my highest-viewed posts, by the by) in defense of certain aspects of the game. Recently I came across a post of someone bad-mouthing the sling. Why would anyone use such a stupid weapon when crossbows and longbows are available?

Well, ask a stupid question...
Since I hadn't used a sling as a PC before, I figured I'd look into this complaint and see how valid I thought it was. And hoo boy do I have some new character plans after doing this bit of research.

What's The Big Deal About A Sling?

All right, we'll begin at the beginning. A sling is a simple weapon that has a 50 foot range, and it can be fired (though not loaded) with one hand. You can apply your Strength modifier to damage with a sling, which gets a lot of folks' ears to perk up. It takes a move action to load, too, which is where a lot of players start edging away from it. It has no crit range and only does 1d4 damage for a Medium sling, and 1d3 damage for a Small sling. Not great, but the ease of use means it's something any character can pick up and use when they need a ranged weapon.

Most of the time a character has a sling on them as a back-up weapon, or as something cheap to use at low levels when they had no gold left after hitting the armor shop.

Of course, there are ways to make it better.
The big benefit to a sling is, of course, that you can add your Strength modifier to your damage. The negatives are its relative lack of oomph when it comes to damage, and the reloading time. So before we get to the first concern, let's address the second one.

When it comes to re-loading a sling, there are two major solutions:

- Warslinger halfling trait: This halfling trait lets you reload a sling as a free action. It replaces sure-footed, but reloading still takes 2 hands, and provokes an attack of opportunity.

- Ammo Drop and Juggle Ammo: Ammo Drop allows you to load a sling or one end of a double sling as a swift or move action using only one hand. Juggle Ammo lets you reload as a free action, giving you full rate of fire with a sling.

Both of these options might seem like a lot of work to get the most out of a weapon that only deals 1d3 or 1d4 damage, depending on your character's size. However, if you're willing to invest in them, you then have the task of figuring out how to get the most out of your sling.

Beefing Up The Sling

If you want your sling to do more damage, the first thing you need to do is to take the usual battery of ranged attack feats. Point Blank Shot, Precise Shot, etc. Rapid Shot is something that will take some work to get off, but you could also use it with a stone bow if that's your jam. That one is a fun weapon too, and worth looking into if you like bullets but don't want to deal with the restrictions of the sling itself.

Your class features are going to be one of the big ways you beef up your sling damage. Fighters can choose the sling's group as a favored weapon, increasing their damage and accuracy with it. The barbarian archetype Savage Technologist alters your Rage to boost your Strength and your Dexterity, which makes it a lovely dip for slingers who want you really put their shoulder into a shot (though higher level abilities are meant more for firearms). A rogue's sneak attack can be devastating when delivered with a sling, as well.

You didn't see that coming, did you?
The other thing to consider with the sling is how you can modify its damage with magic (either magic used by someone in the party, or from a handy magic item). Some of the spells and magic items that I recommend for a slinger include:

- Magic Stone: A low-level spell that lasts for half an hour, it makes 3 pieces of ammo into +1 weapons that deal 1d6 points of damage. 2d6+2 against undead, which can get heinous if you can rocket off all three shots in one turn against that lich.

- Alchemist's Bullet: This +1 magic bullet can be merged with an alchemical item, and both items hit at once. Useful for when you want to deal additional damage with alchemist's fire or acid over and above the normal bullet. Bonus, if you miss with this item, you can retrieve it and use it again later!

- Boulder Bullet: A shrunken piece of artillery, as soon as it's fired, these bullets grow to be significantly bigger. Like Ant-Man, the joke never gets old!

- Soakstone Sling Bullets: These porous stones can be filled with poison or lamp oil. If the former, a hit delivers the contact poison. If the latter, they deal 1d2 fire damage on a hit. Not great, but hey, every little bit counts!

- Frostbite Sling: A +1 frost sling that, 3 times per day, lets you fling a magic snowball that does subdual damage, and makes the target fatigued. A handy little debuff.

These are just a few of the handy things I came across when tricking out a sling. The major problems, aside of course from cost, are that lots of feats and spells that normally increase the damage on ranged attacks (Rapid Shot, Gravity Bow, things like that) just don't apply to slings. On the other hand, feats like Sling Flail allow you to make melee attacks with a loaded sling, dealing whatever the damage of the enchanted ammunition was in addition to treating it as a flail. A handy feat for pinch-hitting fighters, if that's what you're built around.

Useless? No. Great? Eh...

If you want to build your character around using a sling, it is totally possible for you to do that. With the right feats, enchantments, magic ammunition, and other stuff, you can even do some seriously impressive damage with a sling (boost your strength score, enchant the bullets, get a magic sling, use class features to do more flat damage, etc.). However, wielding a sling takes a lot of resources and dedication; it's not something you're going to slay with right out of the gate, contrary to what David would tell you.

Then again, if you're a half-orc with a medium-sized sling and a +5 Strength score, then then 1d4 from the bullet is just gravy, really. And if you add in weapon training and other bonuses, it will be pretty respectable by the time you hit double digit levels.

Just know there's a long road ahead of you on this one.

Final Thoughts

Building a sling-based character is already a little unusual... but consider all the possibilities you could explore with it! Rather than your usual shepherds and local, small-town heroes, perhaps ask if he used to be a pirate (particularly with the burning bullets mentioned above)? Was your slinger part of a mercenary legion, using this unexpected weapon to devastating effect? Or perhaps he used to be a bandit, carrying such a common weapon to make sure no one could pick him out of a local crowd?

If any of those sound appealing, you should check out:

Each of these supplements is by yours truly, and they're full of NPCs you could tie your character and background to, helping you fully flesh out an adventurer with such an unexpected weapon of choice.

Just a thought!

That's all for this week's Crunch topic! For more of my work, check out my Vocal and Gamers archives, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio! Or if you'd like to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, head over to My Amazon Author Page!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well! And if you'd like to help support me and my work, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron! Even a little bit of help can go a long way, trust me on that one.

Monday, April 22, 2019

5 Horror Board Games You Should Have on Your Shelf

As much as I love RPGs, sometimes I just don't have the energy for a full dungeon delve or battle with the outer madness from beyond the stars. But I still want the opportunity for a fun game I can play with a few friends that can lead to some memorable experiences. Last month I wrote a post titled 5 Fantasy-Themed Board Games You Should Have On-Hand (For When Players Don't Show), and I thought I'd follow it up by talking about some scarier games this month.

Because I'm an avid fan of spooky things in general, and these are some games I always enjoy playing.

#1: Betrayal at House on The Hill

You knew this one was coming.
I fell in love with this game the first time I played it (that story is in the entry So I'm Related to an Ax Murderer for those who are interested in reading it), and no matter how many times I've played this game I've never had the same experience twice.

The short version, for folks who've never played, is that your little party are going up to the creepy old house on the hill to poke around. Mediums and curious kids, college athletes and old priests, the layout of your party changes almost as often as the floor plan of the house itself. Once you enter, you need to look for items while avoiding dangerous happenings. When the omens are right, though, the haunt begins! Will it be a ghostly murderer, an ancient hag, an angry beast from the bowels of the earth, or a werewolf on the rampage? All of these, and more, are options depending on what room you're in when the final omen reveals itself.

While the original Betrayal at House on The Hill is great, I recommend grabbing it and the sequel Widow's Walk at the same time in order to maximize your options. While I haven't had the spare dosh to get my hands on a copy of Betrayal Legacy yet, I am very interested in seeing what it brings to the table.

And, of course, Betrayal at Baldur's Gate allows you to get all Dungeons and Dragons on this game, for those who still want at least a fantasy setting with their horrific monsters.

#2: Zombies!!!

Seriously gross, and seriously fun!
The first time I ever played Zombies!!! was when two players didn't show up for a game night, so we set aside the campaign and brought out this little piece of zombie survival goodness. The idea is simple; you're all in a town that's been overrun by zombies, and you need to get to the helipad in order to escape. In addition to being filled with the walking dead, though, the town is just packed with weapons, health kits, and even extra ammo to help you keep whacking zombie skulls while you stay on the move.

While the basic version of the game gives you a full town, and several modes of play (competitive, cooperative, etc.), I'd really recommend shelling out for the full package with all the extras if you like the game. You don't need everything in The Ultimate Collector's Box, but with super soldiers, zombie clowns, zombie dogs, a mall, a university, and army base, and dozens of other areas of play and optional rules, it really does give you everything you could ask for.

Except a bigger table to hold it all, that is.

#3: Arkham Horror

Mmm... now with 350% more cultists!
I love H.P. Lovecraft's work, problematic as many of the old pulp stories are, and I particularly enjoy games that draw on the Cthulhu mythos. And while I don't personally own a copy of Arkham Horror, one of the best ways to get me to sit down in the game room at a convention is to offer me a seat for playing a round of this game.

A branching path game where you can assemble your team of investigators to try to stop the strange cults, aberrant monsters, and awakening gods of the mythos, this one is always an absolute ball. Even when everyone dies, goes mad, or both in no particular order, it's still a good time had by the table.

#4: Coma Ward

Now we're getting serious.
I remember seeing a video for Coma Ward when it was first coming out, and it immediately hooked me. Because while I love horror-themed RPGs, they can be a little intensive in terms of time and effort over the long-term. But a board game where you all wake up in a coma ward with no memory of who you are, and have to piece it together while dealing with horrific hallucinations and other threats to your body and sanity that will only last a few hours can keep the screws nice and tightened.

I will say that this one runs the risk of getting silly and campy if folks aren't invested, and playing it straight may not be to everyone's taste. Still, if you like the sort of stuff that makes your skin taut and your hair stick up at the back of your neck, this one can be a lot of fun.

#5: The Last Friday

And last, but not least...
I have a thing for slashers. And for those of you who care about such things, I'm a die hard Jason Voorhees fan (I wear a hockey mask ring when I'm out and about, just so other horror fans know). So, while this game is a blatant, Sam's Club Brand Horror version of Crystal Lake, that doesn't bother me in the slightest.

If anything, it enhances the amusement factor.

The Last Friday is a pretty simple game. One player takes on the role of the musclebound maniac trying to kill everyone, and the rest of the table are the camp counselors scrambling to stop him. As their friends die, though, the counselors dig deep, and become hunters, banding together to put a stop to the slasher once and for all... or to die trying!

And, if you're curious, there's a sequel game, too. Last Friday: Return to Camp Apache deals with a new horror being unleashed... a demon that tortures and slaughters people in their dreams. And while the illustration on the cover looks more like Wolverine than everyone's favorite burned-up child killer, every horror fan out there couldn't help but see the colossal wink that comes with this one.


Well, you've had your five recommendation, but wait, there's a couple of bonuses for you! If you're a fan of both cheesy B horror films, and you like digging through resale shops looking for out-of-print games, then you should keep an eye out for Grave Robbers From Outer Space! I wrote a longer article about it subtitled The Best Card Game You'll Never Play for The Dead Walk a little while ago, and serious horror game enthusiasts should definitely keep an eye out for a copy while they're on the prowl.

Also, if you're a fan of all things horror (in addition to gaming in general), then you might want to take a look at some of the articles up on my Horror archive. It's small for now, but it won't stay that way for long!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday! Do you have a recommended game I missed? If so, leave it in the comments below!

For more of my work, check out my Vocal and Gamers archives, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. Or if you'd prefer to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, then head over to My Amazon Author Page!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now Pinterest as well! To support my work, consider Buying Me a Ko-Fi, or heading to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron. That one helps ensure you get more Improved Initiative, and it means you'll get my regular, monthly giveaways as a bonus!

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Rise of The Runelords Chapter 14: The Taking of Fort Rannick

Sandpoint's heroes were far from home, but what had been a disquieting silence turned out to be far worse than any of them could have anticipated. Fort Rannick had been silently overrun by ogres, and their misbegotten kin roamed the high forests above the village of Turtleback Ferry. The ogre kin were slain, but the true ogres that held the fortress could sweep down at a moment's notice.

If no one stopped them, that was.

To get up to speed on the rest of the adventure, check out the previous chapters:

- Chapter 1: Blood and Butterflies
- Chapter 2: Murder and Glass
- Chapter 3: The Sin Pit
- Chapter 4: Tussles in The Tangle
- Chapter 5: The Assault on Thistletop
- Chapter 6: Secrets Behind The Curtain
- Chapter 7: Murders At The Mill
- Chapter 8: Halflings and Ghouls
- Chapter 9: Fox in The Hen House
- Chapter 10: Something Rotten in Magnimar
- Chapter 11: The Crumbling Tower
- Chapter 12: Demonbane
- Chapter 13: Trouble at Turtleback Ferry
- Chapter 14: The Taking of Fort Rannick
- Chapter 15: Water Over The Dam
- Chapter 16: Mad Lovers, And Lost Captains
- Chapter 17: The March of The Giants
- Chapter 18: The Taking of Jorgenfist
- Chapter 19: The Secrets Beneath Sandpoint
- Chapter 20: At The Gates of The Runeforge
- Chapter 21: Storming The Halls of Evocation
- Chapter 22: The Bowels of Necromancy's Tomb
- Chapter 23: The End of Runeforge
- Chapter 30: The Fall of Karzoug

Finished? Excellent! Now then...

Retaking Fort Rannick

We can't exactly knock on the door and ask nicely.
While the Black Arrows are drinking deeply of their newfound freedom, eating for the first time in days, and having their wounds seen to, they tell the tale of how giants came down from the mountains and took them in the rear. Undermanned for years, and with their captain off in the forests for days at a time doing the gods only knew what, they didn't have the resources to stand against the creatures. A few had fled, but were trapped by the ogre kin before they could raise the alarm.

Fortunately for their saviors, there was a secret way into Fort Rannick. A side passage through a cave that just might let them get in unseen to spring a surprise counterattack.

A cunning plan was drawn up in the dirt, allowing them to see just what they were up against. There were a dozen ogres all told, though perhaps more now. While some watched the front gate, they didn't stand guard as men would stand guard. Vicious and brutish, the giants weren't soldiers. But if they were all alerted to a threat, then they might descend as one to crush it.

Unfortunately, the band quickly realized that was not an exaggeration. Because while Thok's hunter's instincts allowed him to move silently through the treeline near Fort Rannick, followed by Bostwick and Zordlan, Zhakar was never much of a woodsman, and his soldier's profile stuck out among the trees. Spotted by the ogres at the gate, they roared, and leaped off the wall. Eager to fight a lone figure they'd caught trying to sneak away, they anticipated a swift victory.

They were in for a rude awakening.

The giants were still a dozen paces from Zhakar when Thok's first arrows flew, slamming into the ogres and driving them sideways. Confused and angered, one ran toward the woods where Zordlan was drawing an arrow for his bow, and the other ran at Zhakar, his club raised. Snatching his short sword, Zhakar ducked and dodged around the massive club, cutting at the brute's arms and legs, always managing to stay one step ahead of the trunk. It wasn't until their captain joined the fray that Mirelinda loosed her magic, though, rocking the ogres back on their heels. Pressing their advantage, the brutes were soon slain. Before any of their compatriots could come to investigate, the companions fled into the small cavern behind a waterfall.

Cut Off The Head, The Body Will Die

The caverns were dark and quiet, but also empty of most dangers. Zhakar knelt and clucked his tongue, scratching a mating pair of shocker lizards whose haphazard discharges rolled right off of his skin while the others snuck through to the other side of their territory. A revenant rattled its chains in a forgotten crypt, but it showed no interest in crossing the confines of the consecrated ground.

Other than that, cave was fine!
The secret entrance of the cavern led into the courtyard of For Rannick... a place strewn with bones, and dismembered bodies. Some of them were animals... the others didn't bear thinking about. While one hunchbacked ogre stirred a pot and fussed with a drying rack, Zordlan drew a wand from up his sleeve, and whispered a word as he touched each of his companions with it. They quietly slid up the inner wall, one by one, crawling up the stone like spiders as the ogre cook stirred his pot and crumbled strange spices into the brew.

Once they were on the upper walk, they carefully stepped into the top floor hall. The place where the captain of the Black Arrows had his quarters, and where the men kept a chapel for those who served in the mountains. The hall stank of blood, and of the thick, cloying odor of something still living there.

The captain's quarters were first, where a pair of ogres were half caught in the act of copulation. Though surprised, they fought hard, with one half of the couple letting loose her magic and the other slamming a huge ax around the small space. Thokk managed to slay the warrior, leaving his own share of blood on the floor, and it was Bostwick who distracted the spellcaster long enough for Zordlan to drive his steel up under her arm and into her heart.

The fight had been brief, but they had no way of knowing if the sound of ogres mating and fighting were different enough to raise the alarm. Zhakar laid his left hand on Thok's shoulder, knitting the flesh together, before they opened the chapel. Inside was a slaughterhouse, where bodies had been desecrated, and then used as the components in some twisted ceremony meant to glorify a profane goddess. Another ogre, bigger than the others and drenched in blood, turned to see who had disturbed him. He launched himself forward, howling as battle was joined.

Zhakar grabbed the descending spear head, wrenching it aside with his gauntleted hand. Green fire lit in his eye, the skin flaking away as it pulsed, revealing the gleaming steel beneath. His sword chimed as it cleared his sheathe, and bit deep when he sank it into the ogre. Surprised, and enraged, the creature fought on, blood pulsing from its side. Zordlan ducked a swing of the huge spear, angling to take their enemy in the rear, but the creature's thick hide turned the point of the elf's rapier. Mirelinda retreated from the creature, a long, willow wand flinging bolts of magic at the monster. Thok fell for its feint, and felt the whole weight of the spear slam through his side, driving him from the room. Just as the Numerian fell against the wall, Zhakar's blade slid between the ogre's ribs, and the mad flames roaring in the creature's eyes went out. It fell to the ground with a thud that nearly shook the walls.

What Lies Beneath

Though gravely wounded, Thok was on his feet after a slug of the sweet water potions the companions had brought all the way from Magnimar. Which was for the best, as Fort Rannick was far from reclaimed.

Gods and devils, how many of these bloody things ARE there?!
While the ground floor of Fort Rannick was not overrun with ogres, there were perhaps a dozen of them idling in the grand halls, and building nests in the unused rooms. In no mood to leave their new home, the giants fell one by one before the steel and spells of the companions. Rather than feeling as if they were drawing closer to victory, though, the entire fortress seemed to be holding its breath. As if there was something lurking... something that was merely waiting for them to find it.

That thing waited in the bowels below.

In the dungeons below Fort Rannick, a woman awaited them. Standing in an open cell bedecked with comforts, her red hair shone like a blaze, and her smile was radiant as the battle-wearied and blood-streaked Zhakar came down the steps, blade in hand. Thok stood behind him, his initial pleasure at the sight of the woman fading into suspicion, his grip on his spear tightening. Zordlan was more pleasant, but even as he spoke he did not sheathe his rapier.

If rumors were true, this woman should have drowned in the lake months ago beneath an overturned ferry. Why was she here now?

Her question, of course, was why the companions had traveled so far to see little old her. They'd been heroes in Magnimar, after all, why come to this little corner of nowhere? Unless, of course, they'd read her sister's letters and decided they wished to join her?

Oh son of a bitch, not another one!
The lamia matriarch revealed her true form, and asked if the companions would consider joining her and her masters. Such service was certainly preferable to death at her hands in this godsforsaken rock pile.

In response, Zhakar merely raised his empty left hand toward the creature. His hand glowed bright as day, and the light narrowed to a pinprick in his palm. For a moment the dust in the room stilled, and a beam bright enough to leave purple afterimages across his companions' eyes streaked across the dungeon cell, and slammed into the creature. It smashed through her resistance, and she screamed as her eyes were burned blind in her head. Clutching at her face, the matriarch slithered back, lashing out blindly before she bellowed a single word, and vanished with a crack of imploding air.

"The answer is no," Zhakar said, as he lowered his smoking left hand. He flexed the fingers, waiting until the last motes of light had winked out of existence before he turned to his friends. Zordlan stared, all but open mouthed. Mirelinda wasn't far behind. Thok grinned, proud of his friend for commanding the light that he knew had lived within him all along. "Let's go get the others. Tell them we got their fort back."

Though the fortress has been retaken, is the giant threat truly over? What other dangers lurk in the hamlet of Turtleback Ferry? Find out on the next installment of Table Talk!

For more of my work, check out my Vocal and Gamers archives, as well as the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out from time to time. Or, to check out books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, head over to My Amazon Author Page!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on FacebookTumblr, and Twitter, as well as on Pinterest where I'm building all sorts of boards dedicated to my books, RPG supplements, and greatest hits. Lastly, to help support me and my work, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron! Even a little donation can have a big impact.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Redlining, and What A Well-Placed Retcon Can Do For Your Campaign

We've all been in those situations where we just felt a game go sour on us. Maybe it was when everyone's favorite party member died, but it later turned out that in the heat of the moment a rule was interpreted incorrectly, and that PC should have lived. Perhaps it was when the DM pulled a big reveal, and it turns out that the intricate fantasy setting everyone's really been digging is actually the remains of a bombed-out space colony in a far flung moon, and all of the magic they've been interacting with are just glitching holograms and hard-light creations. More on that in DMs, Don't Pull A Bait-and-Switch on Your Players (It Won't End Well). Or, in a few cases, it might be when the DM just took a scene too far, and the rest of the table was not cool with it.

You want to keep the game going, but it's like trying to swim with a boat anchor wrapped around your leg. Which is why you should just draw a red line through it, and keep on going.

Right, so while it APPEARED that Faruk was dead, he returns with quite a story to tell you...

Editing Works For Your Campaign, As Well As A Book

Too many people around the table (the game masters and story tellers in particular) treat the events of the game as set in stone. Much like the game rules, a group has the ability to call for an amendment, if they feel collectively that it needs to be made. In those instances where everyone agrees that something was not all right and should be addressed, that's when you make an edit.

Or, as I've heard some folks call it, a redlining action.

All right guys, let's just back that up and take it from the top...
Redlining is, more or less, highlighting the incident that everyone has agreed was not acceptable, hitting delete, and doing something different. I've even got an example of a situation from my own table of how it can work.

So, a friend of mine was DMing a game a while back where the protagonists were all members of a fantasy peace keeping organization. Some came from the "good" fantasy kingdom that was heavily Tolkien inspired, others from the "evil" one where everything was dark, gothic, and run by vampires. Think Wicked City crossbred with Pathfinder, and you're most of the way there.

While he did all the heavy lifting on the world building part of this, I agreed to be the rules consultant to help make the bad guys do what he wanted them to do. Generally he kept things vague so that I still had some surprises as a player, but there were certain things he needed a second set of eyes on making work without bending or breaking the rules as they were laid out. When he mentioned that one of the available orders from the dark side was essentially the secret police who were trained in duplicity and spycraft, I was all about that life. Because a pseudo-vampiric James Bond was a character I hadn't known I wanted to play until I was given the opportunity to do so.

At that point, a plan was hatched. Because a central theme of the game was these two diametrically-opposed kingdoms working together, but there were going to be schemes and betrayals on both sides as the game went on, making the party isolate themselves from superiors on either side. However, the DM reasoned that it would have more impact if it was the professional spy in the party (given that his organization was the equivalent of vampire KGB) who kicked over the stone. The idea was that in one of the earlier arcs he would cross a line, then attempt to undo the damage and redeem himself, progressing from, "loyal, self-interested member of the evil army," to, "rebel who knows all of the evil army's methods, and who uses that knowledge to dismantle the villains from the inside out along with his friends."

Well, it looked good on paper.
Needless to say, that is not what happened at all when the incident transpired. The players made their displeasure known, and were very clear that this was not the kind of game they had signed up for (which is to say, one with inter-party betrayal, whether or not it was a pre-scripted thing). Apologies were issued (and meant), and at that point a decision had to be made. The options basically boiled down to:

- Continue On: The incident had already happened, after all, so why not just keep the game moving?
- Redline It: There was a glitch in the system. Rewind to the scene before the objectionable event happened, and go in a different direction from there.

A DM who couldn't read the room might have gone for the first option, claiming they were already in things and so they might as well keep going. While no one said it in words, the atmosphere was pretty clear; trust in the game had to be earned back if the players were going to take one more step forward. So the DM talked to the players, and proposed a rewind and rewrite. The players agreed to move forward down that other path, and in time rediscovered some of their initial spark. It took a while to get things back on track, but the game eventually came to a satisfying conclusion.

Just Another Tool in The Box

Sometimes your game falls flat. You make a mistake, or it turns out that what you thought was a great plot twist is actually a table flipper. So keep in mind that the previous events can be altered the same way you could if you were writing a story. Just make sure that everyone at the table agrees it should be changed, and that you understand why it didn't work in the first place before moving forward.

Otherwise you might find that history repeats itself.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday! Hopefully it struck a chord with some folks. If you've ever had to redline a scene, why not tell us about it in the comments below?

For more of my work, check out my Vocal and Gamers archives, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. Or if you'd prefer to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, then head over to My Amazon Author Page!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now Pinterest as well! To support my work, consider Buying Me a Ko-Fi, or heading to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron. That one helps ensure you get more Improved Initiative, and it means you'll get my regular, monthly giveaways as a bonus!

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Have Spells, Will Travel (The Spellslinger)

The Calladaris men sniggered at the stranger as he walked up the street toward them. He wore no steel, but there was something in the way he moved; a confidence that said he might not need it. He stopped in the street, and tucked a thumb through his belt. An errant breeze flipped the long coat he wore, making it snap.

"I hate to interrupt, but I'm going to need you all to apologize to my horse for earlier," he said.

"You what?" Crassan goggled, staring at the man as if he'd lost his mind.

"I know you all were just having a bit of fun," he said, waving a hand back toward where his horse was cropping grass at the rail. "But he's very sensitive. We just got into town, and I don't want this hanging over his head."

"Look, friend, I don't know what sort of fun you're trying to have, but it ends here," Duran said, stepping down off the porch. "So go back to that sorry looking animal, and-"

Before Duran could finish what he was going to say, the stranger took his hand off his belt, and pointed. A pinprick of light shot forward, burrowing into Duran's forehead. Blood spilled down his face, and his jaw fell open. Two more star embers hammered forward, smashing into his chest. Duran stood there for a moment, then collapsed into a heap in the gutter. The stranger uncurled the rest of his fingers, fanning them out toward the gang, all of their hands freezing around their hilts.

"Does anyone else want to suggest what I should go do?" he asked, his voice pleasant. "Or will you say you're sorry?"

I asked you kindly. I ain't asking again.

The Spellslinger

Magic is a potent tool, and those who can wield it through training, birthright, or bargain often find they have a weapon deadlier than any steel blade. While some use this power responsibly, and others use it to further their own ends, the spellslinger is a unique case. Roving mercenaries, wands-for-hire, enforcers, thugs, and occasional heroes, these wielders of the arcane and divine rely on the speed and power of their incantations to win the day over any foe.

Unlike scholarly masters of the arcane, spellslingers are down-and-dirty casters. They utilize every advantage they can get, from mystical tattoos to enhance their raw power, to keeping a brace of wands on-hand should they need a little extra boost. They also tend to use sleeve sheaths as a way to keep their necessities ready for a quick draw. While they may be looked down on by more serious students of the magical arts, there is no denying that weaponizing magic in such a visceral way puts these casters in quite a demand from those looking to add some serious firepower to their ranks.

Where Do Spellslingers Come From?

Spellslingers can come from any kind of magical background. As an example, someone might be a self-taught magician, cobbling together just enough knowledge from stolen spellbooks to be really dangerous if they're cornered. Others might have been apprenticed to more senior spellcasters, possibly another spellslinger, acting as a kind of squire. Still others may have been born with their power, simply finding a way to use what they have to their advantage. And some may have been trained by elite academies, or even military units like the Acolytes of Arannis mentioned in 100 Random Mercenary Companies. There are even some spellslingers, it's rumored, who made deals with outside forces to be granted their gifts.

As to spellslingers themselves, they come from all races, and all walks of life. Though the path is particularly appealing to those who find themselves outcast, and looking to carve a life for themselves. Forcefully, if necessary.

One of the most important features of a spellslinger, though, is who they work for (or are willing to work for). Some spellslingers might be the proverbial man with no name, blowing into town, doing their part to help out with their skills, and then heading back down the road. Others might sell their services to bandit gangs or pirate crews, making their outfits significantly deadlier. Some might take work as bounty hunters, or even allow themselves to be deputized by the local law... for a time, at least. Some may even be trying to atone for past sins, using their magic for noble causes to help balance out whatever acts they committed in the past. Acts that may have even put a price on their head. Spellslingers rarely stay in one place for long, though. Their skills often mean there's always someone in need of their aid... or who's willing to pay more, for those whose loyalty can be bought with treasure.

Those looking for possible background connections, gangs, and crews mentioned above might find 100 Random Bandits to Meet as well as 100 Pirates to Encounter to be excellent places to start digging.

Build Advice For A Spellslinger

Spellslingers use magic as a weapon, but that doesn't mean their only spells are damage-dealing. A spellslinger necromancer might sap the energy from his foes, sending them fleeing in terror, for example. A spellslinger who prefers conjuration might pull fell beasts from the pit, and sic them on their foes. Even spellslinger transmuters might turn their foes into something wet and squishy with a brush of their fingertips, and illusionists might make it impossible for their foes to trust their senses.

However, whatever form your spellslinger takes, there are some things you should have on-hand.

First, you want to make sure your spells are as potent as possible. That's why feats like Spell Focus and Varisian Tattoo (or Magic Tattoo for those using the PFSRD) are typically at the top of your priority list. Anything that boosts your caster level, or the DCs on your spells, means your foes will save less often, and you'll do more damage. 3 Tips For Boosting Your Caster Level in Pathfinder as well as How to Increase Spell DCs in Pathfinder both have additional resources for you, as well.

In addition to potency, you want speed on your side. A high initiative is a necessity for a spellslinger who wants to live to fight another day. A lot of your initiative boosting resources can be found in How to Top The Initiative Order Almost Every Time, but one that I didn't mention there is the Warrior Priest feat for divine casters. It gives you a +1 bonus on Initiative checks, and a +2 on casting spells on the defensive, or while grappled.
Lastly, don't forget to check out my 5 Tips For Playing Better Wizards if you're looking for additional inspiration!

Like, Follow, and Stay Tuned For More!

That's all for this installment of Unusual Character Concepts. Hopefully this one gave you something to chew over, whether you're a player, or a game master.

For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. Or if you'd prefer to read some of my books, like my alley cat noir novel Marked Territory, my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife or my most recent collection of short stories The Rejects, then head over to My Amazon Author Page!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now Pinterest as well! To support my work, consider Buying Me a Ko-Fi, or heading to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron. That one helps ensure you get more Improved Initiative, and it means you'll get my regular, monthly giveaways as a bonus!

Monday, April 8, 2019

Rules Might Limit Dungeon Masters, But They Also Protect Players

I've gone on the record several times in saying that I tend to prefer rules-dense games to rules-light ones. Part of this, like I said in Why Pathfinder is My Game of Choice, is because games with a lot of rules also tend to give you a lot of options as a player. As I said back then, games with robust rules back up your character concept mechanically, providing the necessary skeletal structure so that you're not just using the same three or four templates everyone else has access to with different flavor text.

There is another reason I prefer games with a lot of rules, though. It's because, simply put, I think you're less likely to get screwed if you have a contract that spells out how everything works.

Sir, if you'll reference page 357's sidebar, you'll see we've discussed why you can't do that.

The Dungeon Master is Not God

Perhaps the most-quoted thing I see about being a DM is some variation of, "You can do whatever you want. You're god, after all." While this is true in the sense that the DM is the one who handles the spinning of the cosmos, who populates the world, and who rules over decisions, the DM is more like a team lead or a boss than a deity. Ideally they should be working with everyone else on their team to reach their goals and to overcome challenges.

Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

Johnson, your fighter's dead. Roll up a new character. No, at level 1!
Whether your dungeon master is someone who isn't good at making up necessary rulings on the fly (not every good storyteller has the skills to design a game, after all), or because they are actively adversarial in their approach, in a rules-light game it is all too easy for the players to get screwed. It's a lot like how, before the advent of labor laws, there was nothing stopping employers from working someone for 14 hour days until they dropped. Except, you know, fairness, and morality, and stuff like that. Which, if you'll recall, didn't work all that well.

Yes, I'm comparing dungeon masters to the robber barons and cutthroat capitalists of the gilded age. Because while it's true that some of these bosses cared about their employees, tried to be fair to them, and wanted to promote equal prosperity, there were also bosses who used and abused people to get their way. Bosses who wrung out anything workers had to give, then tossed them out on the street when they protested their treatment. Dungeon masters can be the same way; some of them are good, some are well-meaning but flawed, and some of them really should not be in charge.

That's where the rules come in.

To continue this metaphor, the rules of the game are like the labor laws that companies have to follow. Because it would be more advantageous for them to simply fire someone the moment they got injured on the job, but doing that is often illegal. In the same way, you might have a dungeon master who wants to declare that this fall from the rooftop killed your character, but according to the falling damage chart in the book, you would only take 5d6 damage. You've got 50 hit points, so even on a maximum roll you're going to survive, even if the DM thinks it would be more dramatic for your character to die.

Now, having the rules about falling damage, about critical hits and failures, damage dealt to sundered weapons, or about energy resistances spelled out in black and white doesn't stop a dungeon master from telling a story. What they will do, though, is stop a dungeon master from making up their own rules to suit their fancy, or imposing rules that aren't fair because, "Well, there's no rule for that in the book, so I'm going to do it this way."

In short, rules-dense games tend to put players and dungeon masters on a more equal footing, and they protect players from capricious, inexperienced, or mod-happy DMs. They're a contract between you and everyone else at the table about how the physics of the game actually function, and they cut out a lot of the wiggle room that is present in games with fewer rules.

A Paper Shield is Still a Shield

While it's true that groups can change the rules to suit their play style, those changes need to be things that everyone agrees about. And it's a lot easier to come together to collectively bargain over minor changes or modification than it is to make entirely new rules from scratch because something you want to do wasn't covered in the original text.

Cut damage in half and round down on successful saves. All in favor?
At the end of the day, though, both players and the DM are bound by the same contract. Each side is expected to follow the rules they agreed to. While it's true that it requires more reading, practice, and system mastery to play (much less run) these games, they're also harder for a hanging judge-style DM to simply get in the chair and start making rulings about who does and doesn't die, lose hands, get class features stripped from them, etc.

It's not for everyone, but it is a distinction that I consider important. Because if the rules are clear and spelled out, I don't have to extend a DM the same amount of trust that they can handle their position as I would if there were only a few guidelines in place they could ignore at their whim. And if players can point out where a DM's ruling is in violation of the agreement, then that helps keep everyone on a level playing field.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post! Been thinking on this topic for a while, so I thought I'd finally get my thoughts out there. What about the rest of you? What are your thoughts on rules systems being used as a way to protect players from bad DM decisions?

For more of my work, check out my Vocal and Gamers archives, along with the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio! Or, if you'd like to check out books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, head over to My Amazon Author Page instead.

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and now on Pinterest as well! Lastly, if you'd like to help support me, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi or going over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular monthly patron! Even a little bit can go a long way.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Have You Tried Using "Spiritual Bleed" In Your RPG?

"Are you sure you want to hold to this road?" Finar asked his companion. "It's just, well..."

Kegare smiled a little at Finar, though the expression looked out-of-place on the knight's face. Something hotter than fever burned in his eyes, and his lips were a little cracked. When he straightened, the tendons in his neck stood out in stark relief, and his pulse beat hard in his throat.

"Waiting will do us no good," Kegare said, with something like his usual, calm tone. Beneath it, though, simmered the rage. The fury that was burning through the good man's resolve as steadily as acid. "The bargain hangs round my neck. There's nothing to be done for it."

Finar was about to speak again, when riders appeared over the top of the hill. They bore down, weapons in hand and black masks across their faces. Kegare's smile grew wider, and a sickening pleasure flashed across his face. Finar had squired for the knight for years, and had always known him to be a kind, just man who placed words above steel. But as darkling fire raced across Kegare's fingers, engulfing his hands, he knew that his master was one step further away than he'd been even a moment ago.

Embrace the flames long enough, and you, too, will burn.

Spiritual Bleed: When Outside Forces Change You

If you've ever played an RPG before, then you're familiar with characters who draw their power from an outside source. The traditional cleric receives their magic from obedience to a divinity or a force, for example. A witch or a warlock has a patron they've been chosen by, or made a bargain with. Mediums allow the spirits of the dead to work through them, acting as gateways. Even a barbarian's Rage might be seen as tapping into some force beyond their own muscle and sinew, dipping into a well of power that turns them into a force of nature for a brief period of time.

Power often comes with a price, though. Because the more you tap into these powers, and the more of it that flows through you, the more it can erode who you were. A concept I call spiritual bleed.

It all began with a shark...
One of the clearest examples of this idea is something I set out for a Werewolf: The Apocalypse character of mine. For those not familiar with this particular White Wolf game, it's a modern fantasy setup where players take on the role of modern-day werewolves. These warriors exist to protect Gaia from the forces of destruction, and they've been engaged in a shadow war with the forces of the Wyrm for centuries. If they lose, then we all lose, and the world ends.

Into this setup came a cub named Tucker. An albino metis (a monstrous offspring of two werewolves mating, something strictly forbidden by their own laws), Tucker spent most of his life in a junkyard being raised by his grandmother's human kin (mortals who are in on the secret war, and who provide the backbone of support in fighting the Wyrm), and a familiar spirit named Gregor... a huge cockroach. When Tucker had his first change, he sought out other werewolves to help him reach his full potential.

Tucker was unusual among the garou, in that he was not a natural fighter. A mechanical-minded young man, he had a natural inquisitiveness that led his sharp mind down interesting and unexpected paths. But Tucker was also soft-spoken, retiring, and tended to fold in on himself when others were around. Scribbling notes in his book of blueprints and murmuring to himself while drawing back from the world around him.

Until his Rite of Passage, that was...

Let me hear you howl.
When a cub undergoes this rite, they are approached by powerful spirits which each stand as the heads of the tribes of the werewolf nation. Choosing which spirit to ally yourself with binds you to that tribe, and makes you an adult in the eyes of your fellow garou.

When the dust cleared, Tucker was chosen by Fenrir. For those of you familiar with Norse mythology, the giant-born colossus of power and ferocity you're picturing is exactly the spirit that Tucker is now bound to through membership in this tribe. This changed the character in some mechanical ways (access to certain powers, able to take an extra level of damage, etc.), but it also changed him in other ways. He stood straighter, spoke louder, and took up space in a way he hadn't before. He developed a presence that was bigger than when he had been a cub.

Then, when he was offered a place in a pack dedicated to Shark, another spiritual pigment was mixed into his makeup. Shark is a spirit who is swift, sure, and who shows neither pleasure nor remorse in the act of killing. When combined with the influence of the great Fenris wolf, the quiet tinkerer took on an almost uncanny focus, able to see, pursue, and complete his goals without hesitation.

Being tied to spirits, and accepting the boons they provide, rubbed off on him. Altered him. If those connections were severed, or their boons withdrawn, it would also alter who he is. Because when you accept an outside power, tying it into your being, then it colors you. And when it's removed, then that influence fades away as well.

It's an aspect of these bargains that sometimes gets lost when you're too focused on what bonuses they grant, or what rules you have to avoid breaking in order to keep your patron happy.

The Side Effects of Power

Spiritual bleed can be slow and subtle, or hard and fast. It can be disturbing, or it can be uplifting. The idea behind it, though, is that being in contact with forces beyond your ken leaves its mark on you. Especially if something from them is flowing into you!

It might mean that the warlock who wields a fiendish power too freely finds themselves becoming jaded, cruel, or even bloodthirsty. It might mean that the paladin who channels divine forces begins to lose touch with mortality, too caught up in the celestial movings of the world they glimpse through their connections to the beyond. It might mean that when a theurge makes a bargain with a spirit of the wyld that they find themselves wearing their wolf skin more and more, unwilling to put on the form of man unless they truly must.

But they reached that point (at least partially) because of a force that came from outside of themselves. Perhaps they bargained with it willingly, or perhaps they only reach for it out of desperation, but it's had an effect on them. It's changed them.

The question you have to answer is how has it changed them? And has it been for the better, for the worse, or simply in a direction you didn't expect?

Also, for more tips on how to get the most out of your warlock characters, check out my guide 5 Tips For Playing Better Warlocks. Or if you're a fan of Werewolf, and particularly the Get of Fenris, take a look at my latest supplement, 100 Get of Fenris Kinfolk!

Now get back to gaming!
That's all for this month's Fluff installment! For more of my work don't forget to stop by my Vocal and Gamers archives, as well as the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out. If you'd like to check out some of the books I've written, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, then had over to My Amazon Author Page!

To stay on top of all my latest releases you can follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and even Pinterest, now! And if you'd like to help support me and my work then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi or going to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! Every little bit helps, and if you become a patron then you'll get access to my exclusive giveaways.